There are no pockets in a shroud. While we can accumulate external riches during our life, it’s only the internal riches that we save up which will survive the grave. Jesus nowhere teaches that money and wealth are bad in themselves, nor is he saying that we mustn’t practise prudent housekeeping. But he frequently teaches that the human heart can be easily corrupted and seduced by wealth, making it difficult to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s not the wallet but the heart which is the problem.
Wealth, the power it gives, the sense of earthly security it bestows, the delights it promises: all these are good when moderated by temperance and charity, but they are a fatal trap if we let them take over. And so, Jesus warns against avarice of any kind, whether it be that of the brother who won’t share the inheritance or that of the brother who is demanding his part of it. Some could argue that this second brother in the parable only wanted justice, and that could indeed be so. Yet, selfish motives can often lie behind claims that look virtuous.
Avarice or greed is one of the seven deadly sins: it can kill the life of grace in the soul. St. Paul describes it as worse than idolatry because a greedy person can end up preferring to lose God rather than his wealth. It is the tenth commandment of the Decalogue which forbids covetousness of things, of people and even of animals (“thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s donkey”!). Covetousness covers not only the property of others, but what you have yourself. It means not wanting to share it or even spend it. The avaricious person is also tempted to break the seventh commandment, “thou shalt not steal” in order to preserve his own wealth. The commandments are not arbitrary impositions. They are like operating instructions for the human being to know how to function properly. A person is certainly free to ignore the instructions, but he can’t then complain if his life ends in disaster. It’s irrational to cast basic operating instructions aside in the name of personal freedom, unless we are to include self-destruction among the aims of freedom.
Jesus talks of the precariousness of laying too much store by material wealth. How many stories we read in the papers of people being duped out of their hard-earned pensions! Where money abounds, thieves abound all the more. No matter how big the barns we have, we all still fit into more or less the same size of coffin. Money does not buy us life – real life, eternal life. As Jesus says elsewhere, we cannot serve both God and money. If we let money master us in this life, we will treat the Master of our eternal happiness with contempt.
So, the message of the Gospel is to use money to gain treasure in the sight of God. We need temperance and moderation in our search for money, in our use of it and in our holding onto it. Temperance implies balance, a true sense of priority and proportion. It’s really a form of charity, of putting earthly means at the service of the good of others. One thing is to be concerned about how much money I can get or make; another is to be concerned about how much good I can do for others with the money I can get or make. If I find myself reluctant to give, especially if I resent giving even a little, then a red light should go on and some serious groundwork on the soul is in order. Remember the widow’s mite. It’s normal and wise to keep something for a rainy day but, in the face of the true need of others, a gesture of generosity will keep your sun shining for ever.
Avarice, of course, can be for other things besides money, for position or renown, for example. These, too, can lead to other deadly sins such as pride, jealousy and even hatred of anyone or anything that gets in the way of my ambitions. The Lord invites us instead to a healthy sense of humility and realism about ourselves. Should high position or fame come our way, these, too, need to be used for the good of others and for the glory of God, through generous service and by being an example of human and Christian virtue.
Avarice of any kind blackens the image and likeness of God in us. God is not greedy with his grace and gifts, but pours them out on us with sovereign liberality. If God had been greedy, there would have been no creation at all. And what do we have, anyway, that we have not received? Even the achievements we make are only possible because God gave us our very lives and skills of mind, heart and body. Jesus emptied himself of his divine glory to assume our poverty and fragility. He died naked and utterly rejected on the Cross so that we might be filled with the riches of his divine life. His way of being human is the best way to be human. A truly human heart is at its core divine.
We ask the Lord today to give us open hands and open hearts as regards all the gifts he has given us, be it money, be it intelligence, be it goodness of soul, be it anything else. For there is greater joy in giving than in receiving, greater reward in sharing than in keeping and, above all, there is greater wisdom in bringing riches to God than in trying to bury them in a shroud with no pockets.